Saturday, July 15, 2017

Prompt #285 – A Clerihew or Two

This week’s prompt is purely for enjoyment and deals with a form of poetry that’s rooted in rhymed doggerel formed by two whimsical couplets. The purpose of the clerihew is to create a brief, sometimes satiric, biographical note.

Far from being in the same category as other “form” poems (such as sonnets and sestinas), the clerihew was invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) who was so bored in his high school chemistry class that he jotted down a silly rhyme about Sir Humphrey Davy (the Cornish chemist and inventor who discovered, among other things, sodium). Clerihews developed from this first poem and many have continued to be about famous people (or at least people, characters from literature, pets, and places their authors know). The name of the subject is always the first line. The rest of the poem is supposed to reveal something funny, absurd, or satirical about the subject.  Short and pithy, the best clerihews combine a mix of clownish and urbane elements.

The line length and meter in these poems is usually irregular, the rhymes are often humorously forced, and the rhyme scheme is AABB. Clerihews have only a few simple rules:

1. They are four lines long.
2. The first and second lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other.
3. The first line names a person.
4. A clerihew is a micro-biography and the intent is humor.

Clerihews can be great fun when you need to vent about someone; they can make great little silly gifts for friends and family members on special occasions (I once used clerihews as place cards for a dinner party); and they’re just plain fun to “noodle” around with.
Guidelines & Tips:

1. Begin by choosing someone to be the subject (and first line) of your clerihew (this first line may be simpley the poeson's name or may be a bit longer). Then, write a second line that end rhymes with the first. Next, write a third line in which you reveal something about the subject (personality, occupation, anything—just keep it light. Finally, write a fourth (and last) line that rhymes with the third line. (Consider sports stars, movie stars, recording stars, politicians, famous poets and other authors, family members, or anyone else you know or know about.)

2. Remember that rhyme is essential and be sure to follow the a, a, b, b rhyme scheme (the first and second lines rhyme with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyme with each other).

3. Tell something about the person in your clerihew. Just one biographical detail is enough.

4. Focus on humor but try for a bit of cleverness.

5. Punctuate as you would in normal sentences. Bentley started each line with a capital (once a favored technique in writing poetry), but you don’t have to.

6. Have some fun writing a clerihew or two!

Examples by Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Detested gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I'm going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I'm designing St. Paul's."

Other Examples:

David Beckham
knew how to wreck ’em.
When it came to soccer,
he was a rocker.

My cousin Nancy
is better than fancy—
she’s elegant and cool
and nobody’s fool!

The puppy Zoey
is sweet and showy;
she may be a Morkie,
but she’s looks all Yorkie!

The poet Joe Weil
will make you smile
with stories and more—
he's a raconteur!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Prompt #284 – Rimas Dissolutas

A while ago, my poet friend and colleague Diane Lockward (whom you've met here on the blog) introduced me to a form of poetry called rimas dissolutas. There are great examples of this form and a prompt on pages 234-237 in Diane's book THE CRAFTY POET II: A Portable Workshop.

Rimas dissolutas is a French troubadouric verse that was popular with 12th and 13th century French poets. There are no absolute rules for meter, line length, or syllables. The form’s only strict regulation is that stanzas must contain the same rhyme pattern from line to line in each stanza—each line in each stanza must rhyme with the corresponding line in the next stanza and all stanzas that follow.

If this sounds a little complicated, don’t worry! The form really allows you a lot of freedom. You decide how many stanzas you want, you determine how many lines each stanza will contain (as long as the number is consistent from stanza to stanza—quatrains, tercets, sixains, etc), and line lengths may be the same or varied.

In keeping with old French forms each line may be isosyllabic and contain the same number of syllables, but this is not required.

To sum up the pattern: the first line in the first stanza must rhyme with the first line in all subsequent stanzas.  Line 2 rhymes with the second line in all stanzas. This is true throughout. So, while there’s no end rhyme, there is very consistent rhyme within the stanzas, making the sound value softer and the rhymes subtler in comparison to  typical end rhymes.

For example, if you were to write a three-stanza poem with five lines in each stanza, the following would be your rimas dissolutas rhyme scheme

1-a (rhymes with the first line in the second and third stanzas)
2-b (rhymes with the second line in the second and third stanzas)
3-c (rhymes with the third line in the second and third stanzas)
4-d (rhymes with the fourth line in the second and third stanzas)
5-e (rhymes with the fifth line in the second and third stanzas)




1. After deciding what you’d like to write about, make a list of all the things you want to include.

2. Divide your list into groups of equal length (this will take a little juggling and counting). These groups will become your stanzas. Remember that each stanza must be like every other stanza.

3. If you have five lines in each stanza, you will have five rhyming sounds. Remember that each line in each stanza will end with a word that rhymes with the corresponding line in every other stanza. These may be hard or exact rhymes or off/near rhymes. Some rhymes may even be repeated.

4. Because the form is what I like to think of as structured and unstructured at the same time, experiment with it and see where it takes you. Become your own 21st century troubadour!

1. Choose a subject with which you’re comfortable. You might want to reflect on Sylvia Plath’s and Barbara Crooker's subject matter from nature and think along those lines for your own rimas dissolutas.

2. Although rhyme is important in this form, a good rhymed poem is never rhyme-driven. In other words, the meaning of your poem should never become subordinate to your rhyme scheme. Keep that in mind while writing.

3. Be sure to observe all the usual caveats of good writing especially:

a.     be conscious of creating striking imagery that shows without telling,
b.     include some figures of speech (similes and metaphors),
c.     create a sense of music through alliteration and assonance,
d.     avoid the passive voice (“ing” endings),
e.     be wary of using too many adjectives,
f.      edit out articles and prepositional phrases whenever you can,
g.     decide what details your poem can live without and remove them,
h.     don’t use up all the air in your poem on the last couple of lines,
i.      point toward something broader than the obvious content of the poem.

Of Clocks and Love by Charlotte Mandel

The radio reports conceptions of time—
that two clocks traveling at different speeds
can vary by seconds, minutes and hours.
Physicists surf waves on cosmic oceans.

A poet poor in math, I feel stymied
when scientists operate by creeds
near to religion, aiming telescopic power
to digitize mysteries of creation—

as the universe expands, space/time
swirls in a blender, milky ways bleed
ancient fires, one black hole devours
another. What simple harmonic motion

set off this wild yo-yo we call sublime?
4.3 babies are born every minute. I meet
with joy a great-grandson—and with fears
of drought-shriveled fruits, earthquake implosion.

Still, I cross off calendar days, set a time
the radio sings me awake. Little one, reach
out your arms to those who will adore
the beauty of your body/soul’s creation.
(From The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop, Terrapin Books, Used with the Permission of Charlotte Mandel and Terrapin Books)

Sylvia Plath Reading Her Rimas Dissolutas Poem  "Black Rook in Rainy Weather"

Black Rook in Rainy Weather by Sylvia Plath – Text (note the off and near rhymes)

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To see the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then—
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Prompt #283 – In the Good Old Summertime

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, 
just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life 
was beginning over again with the summer.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Summer is the season of abundance. Also abundant are our memories of summers past. This week, pick one summer and one specific memory (something happy and upbeat), and write about that summer and that special time.

1. Think about what makes summertime so special.

2. Go back in time to a summer that stands out in your memor

3. Re-create the feeling of that time through written language. Show (don’t tell) how you felt.

4. Convey mood and tone with just enough detail (don’t overdo).

5. Appeal to the senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

6. Incorporate things that are season-specific. Here are a few examples:

baseball and stickball
building sandcastles
camping out
catching fireflies
daylight saving time
diving into waves
eating ice cream
going barefoot
picking wildflowers
sipping iced tea or lemonade
summer camp
swimming pools
tending your garden
the ocean
walking in a park
willow trees

7.  Recreate who you were and what happened to make that summer so special. 

1. Start with a free write to get things started (you might want to jumpstart the process by looking through a old photo album or two).

2. Write in a comfortable place (whether that means outdoors or in an air conditioned indoor space), that’s conducive to reflection and writing.

3. If you’re writing, for example, about summer’s heat, give examples rather than simply stating that it was hot. If you’re writing about the ocean, use words to conjure up imagery that “speaks” of the ocean’s sounds, smells, etc.

4.  Always be specific, avoid general terms, phrases, and statements, abstractions, and philosophical musings. 

5. Watch out for clichés.

6. Create a sense of sound (music) through alliteration, assonance, anaphora, and rhythm.

7. Remember what Robert Lowell said: “A poem is an event, not the record of an event.” Make your poem a summer event!

“Midsummer, Tobago” by Derek Walcott
“I See the Boys of Summer” by Dylan Thomas
“My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer” by Mark Strand
“Summer Night, Riverside” by Sara Teasdale    

And just for fun—the old song that "prompted" this prompt's title.